Monday, February 15, 2016

Review: Welcome to Paradise

by Michael Block

Welcome to paradise. A tropical getaway where your inhibitions are whisked away as you embark on a hypnotic journey, encountering beautiful cabana boys, a family looking for something new in their individual lives, and perhaps, your deepest, darkest fears. This place is The Grand Paradise, Third Rail Projects’ immersive event that transforms a Brooklyn warehouse into an island resort filled with a plethora of secret hideaways, private cabanas, and a cast of characters that will force you to think about your own life.
photo by Adam Jason Photography
Transporting the audience to the 1970s and incorporating themes of youth, beauty, and time, among many, many others, The Grand Paradise is an event like no other. Like many immersive theater events, your time at The Grand Paradise is dependent on you, the active participant. After receiving your boarding pass and viewing a wickedly smart airline instructional video with important rules to follow, you arrive at the island resort where you immediately get lei’d. As you wait for the arrival of the other guests, you’re granted the opportunity to explore the resort, that is where there wasn’t a door closed. From a fish tank with two souls pressed up against the glass to a secretive hut, this is your chance to see and feel what The Grand Paradise, the resort that is, has to offer. Once our main guests arrive, we’re serenaded by the voice of a siren and our adventure begins. Just where you’ll go and who you meet throughout your two hour tour will be completely dependent on where in the space you stand, as members of the company will guide you to secluded rooms for one-on-one and group encounters. And those willing to interact with the locals are likely to find themselves having their grandest experience. What’s enticing about this event is that no two journeys will be the same. And this is certainly an event you can attend alone, but sharing paradise with someone special is immensely more thrilling. But be warned, you and your partner will be separated from time to time. But some of those chance moments when you reunite may end up being the most remarkable.
photo by Darial Sneed
Perhaps fate played a hand on my stay at The Grand Paradise. Sometimes you attend theater at a moment in your personal life when you may be dealing with your own issues when something within the piece strikes you. It’s almost as if my journey was perfectly planned out just for me. Without giving too much detail away, after the opening performance, I found myself watching my travel companion get served bowls of water seemingly from the Fountain of Youth, and then suddenly I got escorted to a private cabana by the cabana boy himself, who happened to keep an eye on me all night long. In our one-on-one encounter, he presented a ritualistic ceremony with a secret vessel of water as he questioned me as to why I came to The Grand Paradise. And it was when pinpointed “revealing in youth” that I chuckled for fear he had actually touched upon the truth. His poetic monologue ended with a shot of water and then I was led out to a party where I was gifted a shot of something a little more alcoholic. From this moment on, my fears of the unknown were gone and I was excited to see what else this place had in store. As I explored the sand-filled beaches and Tiki-themed bar, I was once again reunited with my paradise buddy as the cabana boy guided us, along with two strangers, into another secret room literally where you could see the sands of time. That is a room filled with shelves of hourglasses. Poetic, right? And once again, the prophetic cabana boy offered a haunting oration about time and remembering moments, all while we each held an hourglass watching the grains of sand from our lives float down, portraying our firsts, our lasts, and everything in between that is etched into our memory. Apparently this moment at The Grand Paradise hit me hard as I had some sort of reaction as my companion later reminded me. Something I didn’t even realize. Things at The Grand Paradise suddenly got deep. My moment of a potential emotional breakdown happened just minutes later as I was literally left alone in the disco room with the mother, who too, was left alone. It was a feeling all too familiar. But my time watching this woman try to find the beauty she had seemingly lost, all while removing tiny disco balls from her purse that helped her reflect on her true splendor was like reflection on myself. And soon she guided me to watch her dance in this tiny space filled with mirrors, like those disco balls from her purse. And it was gorgeous. But I wasn’t the only one watching her. No no. I soon discovered my buddy was on the other side of the mirror getting his own view. From here on out, we were reunited as we watched the gold lady line up glitter like cocaine and dump it into a glass of wine, which he was forced to drink. We raided the family’s room, stealing items from their luggage, and in some cases wearing the sexy 70s negligee. We had a party at the bar and then found ourselves in the boat playing with knots and in the lounge trying to remember how to use those stupid compasses from middle school math class. But what’s fascinating about this event, despite experiencing so much, there was so much we did not see. For the most part, I found my evening following the stories of the mother, played vivaciously by Tori Sparks, and the youngest daughter. And it’s all due to my placement in the rooms at specific moments in the evening. There are five main arcs you could potentially track and I didn’t encounter three of them at all. And in turn, that meant I didn’t witness their supporting players as well. It wasn’t until the grand finale that I saw company members for the very first time. And I was disappointed that our paths didn’t cross. And who knows what emotions those stories would have stirred up.
photo by Third Rail Projects
Unlike other immersive events, Third Rail didn’t use an existing narrative to establish their evening. This was a thematically satisfying story. Those looking for the familiar will be greatly disappointed, but personally, the originality was more affecting. There is certainly a place and time for those experiences, but the way they established this one was well played. From a creative standpoint, Third Rail knocked it out the park. It’s best to compare the event to Disney rides. You have the staging area where you receive your boarding pass and are granted a chance for cocktail. You have your preshow video via the safety instructional. And then when you’re in the cue and on the ride that is The Grand Paradise, every single detail is expertly executed. Scenic designer Elisabeth Svenningsen did the unthinkable. Not only did she intricately fashion a playground of wonder, but the details that went into it were precise. From the color pallet to the lay of the resort, each door opened a new world that you got to excitedly explore. Ambiance is key, and composer and sound designer Sean Hagerty evoked a tropical oasis. Hagerty and director-choreographers Zach Morris, Tom Pearson, and Jennine Willett skillfully staged their piece by timing out the music for each beat. It allowed the flow of the evening become seamless. Sure, there were some various moments of delay but rarely were you searching for something to do. The costumes by Karen Young were perfectly period. But be warned, if you come in 70s garb or your own adorable Hawaiin shirt, it’s likely someone sporting winter wear would mistake you for a company member. When it comes to choreography, you can’t help but be enamored. Even when there are no words to share, the dances tell a story.
This show is truly all about your experience and discovering what you're looking for. That's why we visited The Grand Paradise. It's the little things that happen at The Grand Paradise that make this experience so special. Whether it's taking in the cabana boy's monologue about the sands of time that may hit a little too close to home or watching your buddy's face light up with joy and excitement when a little bit of magic happens. It's the little moments that we will treasure forever. I found serenity at The Grand Paradise, and I feel rejuvenated. This is one night that will stick in my memory for eternity.